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More Than Sidekicks: Finding Comic Book Superheroes Who Look Like Me

Comic books now feature more diverse superheroes, writes John Vercher, unlike most cartoons and merchandise. Pictured: The cover of "Black Panther: A Nation Under Our Feet, Book 1," written by author Ta-Nehisi Coates, winner of the National Book Award. (Courtesy of Marvel)MoreCloseclosemore
Comic books now feature more diverse superheroes, writes John Vercher, unlike most cartoons and merchandise. Pictured: The cover of "Black Panther: A Nation Under Our Feet, Book 1," written by author Ta-Nehisi Coates, winner of the National Book Award. (Courtesy of Marvel)

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Summers, my Pops would take me downtown to the bank and for lunch. While he sipped coffee, he’d let me run across the street to the Town News, where I was allowed to buy one comic book with my allowance -- though I always bought two, and hid one inside the other. Between these trips, I’d watch the mail for my biweeklies, sheathed in brown paper, waiting to pick up where last month’s story left off.

Now a man-child with children of my own, I’m in my glory with the buffet of comic book movies that await my consumption. Watching characters that I grew up with brought to life on the screen brings with it a damn-near-giddy nostalgia, even when they sometimes don’t quite get the stories right.

But it took a question from my son to realize that even when they get those stories right, the narrative is still wrong.

My oldest, though only 4, is already showing signs of my obsession. He enjoys streaming cartoons of the "Avengers," and I’ve even snuck in clips of the movies on days with the boys. While watching one of those clips, he asked which comic book character was my very favorite, a question that required no thought.

A page from the 2016 comic book series. Black Panther: A Nation Under Our Feet, written by Ta-Nehisi Coates, winner of the National Book Award.
A page from the 2016 comic book series. Black Panther: A Nation Under Our Feet, written by Ta-Nehisi Coates, winner of the National Book Award.

Wolverine, of course, I answered.

And who else?

Probably Spider Man.

And who else?

Iron Man’s pretty cool, too, I said.

We turned our attention back to the screen. Black Panther leapt from a rooftop, chasing after the Winter Soldier.

Who’s that? he asked with excitement

That’s Black Panther, I said.

He’s my favorite.

I smiled, but I couldn’t find my words. I was shook. Here I was, a proud black man, asked to name my favorite heroes, and I hadn’t named a black character. Not one. Instead, I rattled off characters that did not reflect me, my experiences or the experiences of my father. In that moment, I remembered costumes from Halloweens past, boxes of action figures stacked in my childhood bedroom, full of white characters.

Here I was, a proud black man, asked to name my favorite heroes, and I hadn’t named a black character. Not one.

The first time I read a comic book was in 1983 on a train headed to Pittsburgh. My grandmother Nina had been sick, so Mom wanted me to go with her, back home to the Steel City. I had never been on a train before, and it’s my earliest memory of true anxiety.  The drive to Pittsburgh was long enough, but a train ride was grueling for a neurotic, fidgeting 8-year-old. But circumstances left us without a car at the time and choices were limited.

I’d already developed a voracious reading habit but hadn’t thought to bring any books on the train. One of the cars had a rack of comic books. Mom bought me one with a character she knew I’d recognize: "The Further Adventures of Indiana Jones."

I’d never held a comic book up until that point, much less read one. The glossy feel of the cover felt precious; I handled it as though it would shatter if dropped. I cradled in two sweaty palms all the way back to our seats. Drying my hands on my pants, I turned the pages with care, noting the way they looked and smelled almost like newspaper, but not quite. I marveled at the artwork and the way the characters from the movies almost seemed more alive on the page. Mom, the train, all the other passengers disappeared as I got lost in archaeological adventures, interspersed with advertisements for spy glasses and trick chewing gum, until I came to the bottom of the last page, and saw those three words:

To be continued.

The phrase ignited an addiction.

But I want my sons to know heroes of color who are more than sidekicks. The movement looks to change the canon of white saviors that has dominated their pages, but the movies, cartoons and merchandise are slower to reflect this new direction of inclusivity.

I grew up in an age where diversity in comics meant sidekicks. "Captain America" had Falcon. "Iron Man" had War Machine. "Iron Fist" had Power Man/Luke Cage. My access to characters who looked like me was limited. They didn’t sell their costumes at the store. Their action figures didn’t line the shelves. Black Panther wasn't in the racks at the Town News.

In 2011, Marvel comics began a conscious move toward diversity by replacing Peter Parker with Miles Morales, a biracial youth. Other major character changes followed suit. Falcon’s Sam Wilson assumed the mantle of Captain America. Jane Foster became the thunder god, Thor. And Kamala Khan, a Pakistani-American Muslim teen, became Ms. Marvel.

While these are important steps, they are also half-measures. Comics today are far different than those of my childhood. The subject matter is more intense, inappropriate for young children. But I want my sons to know heroes of color who are more than sidekicks. The movement looks to change the canon of white saviors that has dominated their pages, but the movies, cartoons and merchandise are slower to reflect this new direction of inclusivity. Most of the toy versions of Spider-Man are still Peter Parker. Steve Rogers still holds Captain America’s shield.

Until that change becomes consistent across the media, I will be more conscious of the movies and cartoons my sons will emulate, the toys they choose. They will not learn to be sidekicks. The movement of the comics must overcome the whitewashing trend that still hovers over these titles in their film adaptations and in their merchandise, with the realization that our dollars matter, too.

Is there hope, true believers?

To be continued …

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John Vercher Twitter Cognoscenti contributor
John Vercher is a writer.

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